Born: Jan. 30, 1980 in Miami, FL.
Like the character he played on the hit television show That '70s Show, Wilmer Valderrama did not speak much English when he returned to the United States as a teenager from over a decade of living in Venezuela. Using acting as a means of learning English, Valderrama discovered he had talent and pursued a professional career. Playing That '70s Show's Fez was the first big role of Valderrama's young career.
Valderrama was born January 30, 1980, in Miami, Florida. He was the son of Balvino and Sobeida Valderrama, natives of Venezuela who were living in the United States at the time. The family returned to Venezuela during 1983, where Balvino Valderrama worked as a businessman who owned a farm equipment rental firm.
During the next 11 years, Valderrama and his family lived primarily in Acarigua-Araure. Beginning at the age of six or seven, he began taking dancing and acting lessons. Valderrama appeared in his first play at the age of nine, though his debut consisted only of one line. He also played sports, first baseball as a pitcher before turning to soccer.
In 1994, the family returned to the United States because Balvino Valderrama wanted his family—which included Valderrama's two younger sisters, Marilyn and Stephanie, and later a younger brother, Christian, born during 2000—to have better opportunities. His father continued to run the farm equipment rental firm in Venezuela.
When Valderrama came back to the United States, he did not speak much English and had culture shock when he began classes at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, California. There he learned English, in part by appearing in high school plays beginning during his sophomore year. A drama teacher believed he had some talent, which drove him to find an agent. After making his television debut, he still appeared in some high school plays, including Rumors and The Impossible Years.
Soon after landing an agent, Valderrama appeared in several commercials, including a Spanish-language one for Pacific Bell. His first television appearance was in the series Omba Makomba on the Disney Channel in 1998.
In 1998, Valderrama auditioned four times for what became known as That '70s Show. The show was set during the 1970s in Wisconsin and focused on a group of teenage friends. Valderrama won the role of Fez, the foreign exchange student who was learning the language and the social customs of the United States. It was never made clear to the actor where Fez was from, save some unnamed island. Fez was featured as singing in Spanish and speaking in Dutch on different occasions. The character was a nerd who chased girls, but had moments of unexpected insightfulness.
Many jokes in the show revolved around Fez's inexact grasp of English and other character qualities. Valderrama told Jim Slotek of the Toronto Sun, "He just somehow makes sense. (The producers) made a conscious effort to make the character likable and non-offensive to any particular ethnicity. We don't know where he comes from. He has brown skin, but his accent is untraceable. He's naive and innocent, which means he's a character who can virtually get away with saying or doing anything."
Fez was originally not expected to be a long term character, but as with the show, he was an unexpected hit. After slowly building an audience, That '70s Show was renewed at least through the 2002-2003 television season. Valderrama felt close to his character and his struggles, and was careful in how he handled the more annoying aspects of Fez's personality. He told Terry Morrow of the Dallas Morning News, "One of the things about this character is that he and I have gone through the same things. When I first got here to the United States, I didn't know the language, and he didn't either. In my real life, I have made the same mistakes, so we are both learning how to make our way."
While working on the show, Valderrama still attended Taft High School, graduating in 1999, and living with his family in Woodland Hills. Though That '70s Show was a hit, Valderrama continued to audition for films and television. In the summer of 2000, he shot his first feature, Summer Catch.
Released during 2001, Summer Catch was a baseball movie about a prospect league. Valderrama played Mickey "Domo" Dominguez, a virginal second baseman. To prepare for the role, he had to go through a baseball camp with real baseball players, where he was hit twice in the face. Though the movie was not well received, Valderrama claimed to enjoy the experience. He went on to be cast in another film, Party Monster, a dark drama based on the true story of a New York City party organizer whose life spun out of control with drug use, violence, and eventually murder. The film was set to be released during 2003. As Valderrama spoke with writer Rebecca Murray from romanticmovies.about.com on his role in Summer Catch, "as an actor, you should be willing to take challenges—and this was one of them."
Biography Resource Center Online. Gale, 2002.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2007.